Monday, 1 April 2013

Not such a big brother.

David Milliband is to leave British politics because he fears being a ‘distraction’ damaging the chances of his brother winning the next election.

Speaking to the BBC on Wednesday of last week he said he felt a ‘sense of sadness’ at leaving Westminster and remained ‘passionate’ about the Labour Party, but felt he had had to make a tough decision about where he could make the most effective ‘contribution.’ Not, it would seem, on the Labour benches in the commons, since losing the party leadership ballot to his brother Ed in 2010 he has refused several jobs within the party, fearing, perhaps, that were he to accept a job it would be seen as either a snub or a position from which to launch a fresh leadership challenge.

For the past three years his relationship with his brother has been the source of endless media speculation, his resignation is, he said, prompted by a desire to see the political fight be ‘between the vision Ed Milliband has and the vision David Cameron has’, he went on to say that he didn’t want the ‘soap opera to take over the real substance of what has to be done.’

When he leaves politics David Milliband will take up a position as Chair of International Rescue, a New York based aid charity.

Responding to the news of his brother’s departure Ed Milliband said British politics would be a ‘poorer place’ as a result and pledged that if he wins the next election he will ‘make sure he serves the country in one way of another, because he has a huge talent.’

Other tributes came from former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said he was a ‘massive loss to British politics;’ Tory party Chair Grant Shapps praised his contribution to political life and said ‘we wish him well.’ Even former president Bill Clinton got in on the act, welcoming Mr Milliband to his new job by praising him as ‘one of the ablest, most creative public servants of our time.’

Having so much praise lavished on him by the great and the good; or the plain notorious in the case of Tony Blair, must have been an odd experience for David Milliband, like reading his own glowing obituaries without having to go to the trouble of dying first.

Perhaps I am an incurable cynic but this display of filial self sacrifice rings more than a little hollow. If David Milliband really wanted to kill off the ‘soap opera’ surrounding rumours of brotherly rivalry he could have done so in 2010 by joining the shadow cabinet when asked. A month of so of conscientiously getting on with the job would have sent the press pack off to scribble about something and someone else.

Instead he chose to remain on the sidelines piously turning down job offers all the while letting the rumour mill work overtime.

The timing of his exit is suspect too; if he wanted to leave politics he could have done so at the next election rather than saddling his party with the cost of staging a by-election. They will win of course, his Sunderland seat is one of the party’s safest, but given the personalities involved the contest is bound to create the sort of ‘distraction’ he claims to want to avoid.

The truth is, I fear, that David Milliband knows only too well that he was never leadership material. He could have snatched the crown from Gordon Brown in 2008, but lost his nerve. Like Michael Portillo he likes the idea of being seen as ‘the best leader his party never had’; but lacks the guts and drive to push for the job.

Oddly enough despite a rocky start his brother Ed does have the required drive, he cuts a markedly less ridiculous figure now than he did only a year ago. He’s no longer a timid creature peeping out of the pocket of the unions, he’s a seasoned political operator comfortably cracking jokes about what David Cameron can’t organise in a brewery during PMQ’s.

This is though, like Labour’s robust standing in the opinion polls, a thin veneer covering some serious problems. Both the party and its leader lack a coherent message and a real connection with the voting public, without these however unpopular the government may be they will struggle to make real progress.

Having his brother step aside to let him (bless) have a go at being party leader without the shadow of Milliband the elder hanging over him will do Ed few favours come the next election. The media and a Tory Party desperate to cling to power will resurrect and recast this minor incident to show him as weak and a second choice leader.

That could well create a situation where it is David finding Ed a job after the election not the other way around. You don’t have to be Dr Freud to find yourself thinking maybe, at some subconscious level, that’s why he’s chosen to exit stage left now rather than in 2015.

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